1. Agri-environment schemes (AES) are used extensively across Europe to address biodiversity declines in farmland. In England, Environmental Stewardship (ES) was introduced in 2005 to address the shortcomings of previous schemes, but as for schemes in other countries, assessments to date have revealed little evidence for national-scale biodiversity benefits.
2. Here, we assess the efficacy of ES in driving changes in national farmland bird populations over the period 2002–2010, using BTO/JNCC/RSPB Breeding Bird Survey data. We tested for associations between ES management options, grouped into categories reflecting intended biological effects (e.g. stubble), and species’ population growth rates, wherever benefits of management might be expected to occur.
3. We found strong evidence for positive effects of management that provides winter food resources (i.e. ES stubble and wild bird seed [WBS] crops) on population growth rates across multiple granivorous species, at three landscape scales. The results for management aiming to provide breeding season benefits (i.e. grassland, field margin and boundary [hedge, ditch] management) showed mixed patterns of positive and negative associations.
4. The results for stubble and WBS provide the first evidence for landscape-scale responses of biodiversity to AES management. The negative relationships identified may also show the importance of management context driving unforeseen predation or competition effects.
5. Synthesis and Applications. This study demonstrates that agri-environment scheme management has the potential to have national-scale effects on avian population growth rates, although our results suggest that some components of the scheme have had little effect on bird populations. Therefore, whilst this study provides the first proof-of-concept for broad-and-shallow scheme impacts on biodiversity, our results underline the importance of targeting towards population-limiting factors, here winter food resources. A combination of low uptake of key in-field options that provide winter seed and a failure to cover the late-winter period effectively explains the lack of national population responses. Such issues need to be addressed before schemes like Environmental Stewardship will achieve their goals. This study shows the value of feedback from monitoring for informing scheme design, through identifying problems and testing solutions.